How to grab the lowest airfare

For anyone planning a flight for spring break, there are still plenty of deals.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 28, 2013 2:54PM

This post comes from Jennifer Waters at partner site MarketWatch.

 

MarketWatch logoWhen is the best time to get the best value on airfare? It's the most asked question travelers pose, and as spring break approaches, it helps to know that a recent study puts the average answer for a domestic trip at roughly seven weeks.

 

"Of course, a million caveats apply," says Jeff Klees, the chief executive of CheapAir.com, an airfare-shopping engine. "If you're more flexible on your travel dates and time, you can get away with waiting closer to the time to travel." 

In a study of "every possible trip combination" over 11,000 routes, CheapAir dissected more than 560 million fare-search records from 2012's 366 days. "For any given flight, the actual best time to buy might vary, depending on the market, the time of year, the day of week and other factors," Klees says.

 

Image: Beach (© Corbis)But the short answer is 49 days before your departure for domestic flights, while the sweet spot for international flights is 81 days.

 

Airlines will vary fare prices based on availability and preference. A typical flight from Los Angeles to Chicago could carry as many as 20 possible price points when the ticket is purchased. If the flight is wide open, all price points will be available.

 

As fewer seats become available, fares switch to higher levels, and if the carrier sees flights filling briskly, it will spike the prices.

 

"You'll see crazy fares that are literally five times as much as what you would normally pay for a flight," Klees says.

 

Of course, if you want to sit in first or business class, plan to pay a premium for it no matter when you buy the ticket. Ditto if you want a seat in the first 10 rows of coach and, increasingly, if you want more legroom.

 

What's the priciest day to buy a ticket? The day before you fly, with the second worst, two days in advance and the No. 3 spot, three days ahead of time. That pattern sticks through 11 days out, underscoring the need to buy tickets as soon as you can.

 

The real trick to getting cheap fares is to travel during the so-called shoulder season, according to Anne Banas, the executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. The industry ranks travel into three seasons -- high, low and shoulder. High, of course, is when the kids are out of school and the weather is great, or summer, while low is during the depths of winter, when fewer people are traveling, with the exception of the holidays.

 

"The best time to travel is in the middle of all that, spring and fall when prices are discounted, the weather is mostly decent, and seasonal places and events are still open," she says.

 

Because spring break tends to spread out over a four- to six-week period in March and April, Banas says there are still deals to be found. If it's Easter week, which this year falls on March 25-31, that's tricky.

 

Though she warns to watch for blackout dates on some packaged deals, she has seen offers to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands with $300 airfare credit if you book six nights or more and similar airfare credits for the Bahamas. The Atlantis, the biggest resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, has a $69-per-adult-per-night deal plus other bonuses, though there are booking deadlines.

 

The best way to find an airfare deal that you consider a value is to track it closely. There are tools on websites such as Kayak.com, Airfarewatchdog.com and TripAdvisor.com that will do the legwork for you. And CheapAir has a price-drop payback offer that will pay the difference, as a travel voucher, if the price of your exact itinerary goes down.

 

Here's a quick primer on when to find the best deals.

  • Start early. Once you've got your plans in mind, even if you haven't decided if you can actually afford it, start tracking prices. That will give you a feel for the market conditions.
  • If you see a great ticket price, be ready to pounce on it. Many times price cuts are short-lived and last from 24 to 48 hours.
  • If you're traveling during peak travel periods -- Easter week is one of them -- give yourself more time. Those are likely to fill up fast with prices rising along the way. Your best bet: Travel after Easter week.
  • As with any air travel, be flexible. Sunday and Friday flights are going to cost you more than a Tuesday or Wednesday. But during peak holiday travel like Thanksgiving, price will vary based on timing, Klees says. Last year, travelers flying Monday through Friday of the holiday week saved $114 over those who booked a Wednesday-to-Sunday flight.

Another caveat: CheapAir's recommendations come from an in-depth analysis of what happened last year. The industry is long known for its penchant to shift pricing gears at any moment to react to the economy, rising fuel prices and declining travel demands.

 

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34Comments
Jan 29, 2013 1:49PM
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Hmmmm.  Stories about the high cost of college and how college grads are having a hard time finding jobs, juxtaposed with stories about students jetting off for spring break.  Anybody but me see a disconnect here?
Jan 29, 2013 2:45AM
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Thank you deregulation! Some deregulation might have been good but the market forces purist don't want to talk about the multitude of cases concerning gouging. That isn't just the case in the airline industry, it is across every industry and especially when the cost of entry is so high. So the guy said it would be like the store charging 5x as much for milk when they started to run low. It is more like they charge you an extra $5 for a bag and you can't bring your own. 
Jan 29, 2013 12:52PM
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Bottom line is shop around. For $1000 I got a roundtrip flight to Iceland with hotels included. Sure it's the dead of winter, but I don't care about the weather. I want to travel and see the world.

 

Also, if you have the vacation time, $600 will get you a cabin on a transatlantic cruise. It'll take a week to get to continental Europe, but it's a third of the cost for a plane ticket!

Jan 28, 2013 8:25PM
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So by this price reasoning, if milk is $3.50 a gallon at the store and they start running low they should increase the price by 5x on the remaining milk? It should not matter when you buy a ticket, all the same price.
Feb 6, 2013 9:39AM
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Airlines and banks need to be regulated,,It is that simple otherwize they just gouge !!!!

 

Jan 28, 2013 9:19PM
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I put this to the test on a flight from St Louis Missouri to Tucson Arizona...I checked it for 2 days from today's date...1 month from today's date and also 49 days from today's date...Article is a Lie as the cheapest ticket was 30 days from now and then next cheapest was 2 days from now and 49 days from now was MOST expensive.
Feb 14, 2013 2:29PM
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I'm amazed at how many people write messages about deregulation and how the airlines are gouging passengers. Please give me a break.

The fact that you can fly from NY to California for $300 is just absurd. In fact, if airlines would just increase their ticket prices to a reasonable rate they would not have to nickle and dime passengers with stupid fees and they'd keep lowlifes off hte planes. I travel frequently for work and have just paid $279 for airfare from NYC to Denver. It's stupid.  
Jan 28, 2013 11:16PM
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I under stand what this is trying to say, but there are reasons to book as early as possible.  Take Vegas for example.  Sure you can wait until 49 days before the event.  But what if there are major conventions scheduled for a particular week?  Lets take NAB week in April.  Do you reserve a seat now or wait until March to book?  I guarantee you if you wait to March to book, the price of remaining seats will be quite more than buying now or several weeks ago.  Now the price of the housing could feasibly change as hotels, resorts, and motels figure out that the people who plan to attend the event have already booked their packages.  So I've seen housing go down before a convention as it gets closer.  But that's sure not the case with the major casino resorts like Wynn who are already sold out to the television station brass.
Jan 29, 2013 11:30AM
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The article says that Easter Week can be tricky.  If you are flying to Florida from a northern city for Easter Week this year it is impossible to get a cheap flight right now.   I booked last year when the week opened-- I think it's around 331 days in advance-for $541 per person with no seats for redeemable miles.  Same flight is now $1,200 per person and it's only January.  These are for direct flights with no connections.
Jan 29, 2013 10:41AM
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Delta R/T from Laguardia to Ft. Lauderdale... 207.00 - nonstop
Feb 22, 2013 11:21AM
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C'mon nobody; why don't you tell us what you "really" think??
Feb 22, 2013 11:18AM
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Or you could just become a member of World Ventures like I did and get the best price for travel. Ever.

Feb 14, 2013 4:23AM
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I've flown RT to S.CA and back (Balt,MD) and it be $400 beginning of summer 4 people,also RT to Fla in Feb for 2 both tickets totalled $500. But this yr no matter how I played w/ dates for my nephew to come see us, his RT was NEVER less than $490 before taxees,yet its nonstop and was less expensive than any w/ 1 or 2 stops...While boys were in school oldest took most flights out to CA and one way at times was as low as $109, so it really comes down to the airline and service you recieve, If people have noticed,no matter what you pay you only get peanuts offered to you, though I did read of one airline trying to get back into meals and not frozen/nuked items
Jan 28, 2013 9:50PM
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really fail to see how someone could give my comment thumbs down when in fact I did put the article to the test and prices proved the article to be wrong.... Guess some will disagree with facts....
Jan 29, 2013 4:55AM
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Here's an idea, buy a plane if you want a cheap flight, with the amount of money your going to spend regardless on plane tickets, you could buy your own plane and save. Just a thought

 

Twitter @KingStewartIAM

Jan 28, 2013 9:56PM
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OBAMA AND DEMOCRATS AND BIG RICH LIBERAL ALL FLYING IN THEIR BIG JETS AND TELLING US TO STOP DRIVING OUR

GAS CARS FOR STUPID FARTY TOXIC EXPENSIVE BATTERY ELECTRIC PIECES OF CRAP! SO SICK OF DEMOCRATS AND FING

LIBERALS THINKING EVERYTHING THEY THINK IS RIGHT THE REST OF US JUST HAVE TO ACCEPT IT! HYPOCRITES! FOR AL

GORE AND MICHAEL MOORE AND OTHER FAT LIBS IT WOULD BE HIPPOCRITES!

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